Author Archives | Maria Wiering

About Maria Wiering

Maria Wiering is editor of The Catholic Spirit.

A Crowbar in Loveland: The ugly side of art

October 11, 2010


Man, oh, man. First of all, thank you, readers, for tolerating my hiatus. Suffice it to say, due to a few changes around the office, there were not enough hours in the day for my regular writing, so this had to take back burner. I missed it (and hopefully you did, too).

Second, despite the city’s idyllic name, there’s a mess to be addressed in Loveland, Colo. On Oct. 6, a truck driver drove from Montana to the Loveland Museum Gallery, where she approached a hanging lithographic print, smashed its protective glass with a crowbar, and ripped the print to pieces.

And she did it in the name of Christianity.

The print depicted Jesus in a lewd act. Its creator, Stanford prof Enrique Chagoya, intended it to be a commentary on the corruption of the Catholic Church, not a sex act involving Christ, he said in a New York Times story.

But that’s not what 56-year-old, crow-bar wielding Kathleen Folden and others who protested the surrealist piece saw. After Folden had destroyed the lithographic print, she told onlookers why she did it. “Because it desecrates my Lord,” she is reported to have said.

Of course, Folden’s action has stirred the timeless vat of controversy involving free speech, censorship, indecency in art, and the use of religious symbols. Those who opposed the artwork’s display, including a local deacon, called the piece pornography and “deeply offensive.” Those who supported it called it activism, and creative expression.

The print was part of a series the artist called “The Misadventures of Romantic Cannibals,” an obvious insult to Catholics, who, since the first century, have been accused of cannibalism for believing the Eucharist is Jesus’ actual body and blood.

According to the NYT, Chagoya has been getting hate mail for a week, and said he fears for the safety of the museum and those who associate with it.

“I think religion should be about peace and loving, especially Christianity,” it quoted him saying.

And so, it seems to me that Chagoya’s unspoken assumption is this: He can use his art to offensively depict Son of God, and because Christians profess peace, they’ll turn the other cheek.

It seems to me that Kathleen Folden had enough, and, with the vigor of a knight defending his king, went out to slay a dragon. She was wearing a T-shirt that read, “My Savior is Tougher Than Nails” when she went to get rid of the art, and she proved she was pretty tough, too.

I’m conflicted about the righteousness of Folden’s action, but it stirs within my mind an image of Jesus in the temple, overthrowing the moneychanger’s tables, chasing them out of the most sacred place, and making a generally raucous scene.

This incident, known as the Cleansing of the Temple, is recounted in all four Gospels. He was appalled at the profane act, and he did something about it. He didn’t approach the head moneychanger and ask for a dialogue. He didn’t start a petition with the pious Jews, or make a sign and stand outside in protest. He went in and got rid of the profanity.

And it seems that Folden did kinda the same thing.

What do you think? Did Folden defend the church’s honor, or did she violate free speech?

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Summer lemonade for the soul

August 19, 2010



This is so tempting — “Spontaneous Hooky,” ala MinnPost. Stop what you’re doing this afternoon and get down to Field Day at the Minneapolis sculpture garden (it starts in 39 minutes!). So much more interesting than anything else you’re doing right now, like working at a desk. And if you go, take a moment to appreciate the Basilica’s mansard dome on the skyline. Pretty impressive, if you ask me.

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Art heists = good summer reading

August 18, 2010

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Summer at least has the reputation of being this lazy season of laying by the lake, reading paperbacks and consuming copious amounts of barbecue. But, as you and I know, summer is a liar,  because the only thing I’ve had in that list is a copious amount of barbecue, and that was a lot of work to prepare.

Now, like every good Minnesotan who suddenly realizes it’s August and the impending gloom of winter is glowing on the horizon, I’m looking back on these few months of warm-weather bliss and wondering where it all went.

Unlike most good Minnesotans, I can tell you exactly where it went: to researching and writing papers for my summer graduate school class and internship.

Yes, I spent summer inside a library.

However, should the day ever come that something called “reading for fun” is part of my life again ( I have a vague memory of this from my high school years), I’m going to pick up this book that Dan Browning reviewed in the StarTribune. It’s called “Priceless: How I went Undercover to Rescue to World’s Stolen Treasures” by Robert K. Wittman, and Browning describes it as exactly the kind of book you’d want to read lying by the lake.

It’s not just about art and artifacts. It’s a memoir about (FBI agent) Wittman’s experience, and it’s apparently hard hitting on the the federal investigative agencies, and it also explores the racial prejudice the author, who has a Japanese mother, felt after WWII.

It was this graph in the review that piqued my interest, however:

Hollywood depicts art thieves as debonair cat burglars — think Cary Grant in “To Catch a Thief” — or as techno-sleuths — Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones in “Entrapment” come to mind. “Priceless” introduces the reader to some thieves like that, but also to simple fools who snatched an opportunity. The one thing that ties them together, Wittman writes, is “brute greed.”

“They stole for money, not beauty,” he said.

What? An unromantic heist? Could it be? Either way, this one looks worth a read.

If you pick it up, let me know how it turned out. I’ll be in the library.

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City beautiful (and religious): DC statues include Catholics

August 9, 2010


A statue of Cardinal James Gibbons is seen through the trees in a small public plaza in Washington Aug. 6. The son of Irish immigrants, Cardinal Gibbons served as archbishop of Baltimore from 1877 until his death in 1921. He wrote the popular treatise "T he Faith of Our Fathers," a defense of the Catholic faith. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

A statue of Cardinal James Gibbons is seen through the trees in a small public plaza in Washington Aug. 6. The son of Irish immigrants, Cardinal Gibbons served as archbishop of Baltimore from 1877 until his death in 1921. He wrote the popular treatise "T he Faith of Our Fathers," a defense of the Catholic faith. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

Funny today, when, after spending my weekend paging through stacks of books on the relationship between two American Catholic monuments and their role in their civic societies that Catholic New Service would feature this story.

It looks at the statues and symbols of Catholicism scattered around Washington, D.C., like the statues of St. Damien de Veuster and Blessed Junipero Serra, who symbolize Hawaii and California, respectfully, in the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.

The story focuses on the role of Knights of Columbus played in creating Catholic institutions of learning and worship, like Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

However it also addresses the role of religious art in DC broadly. The writer interviewed Father Eugene Hemirck, who published “One Nation Under God” in 2001 on the religious symbolism found in Washington, D.C. (It’s already on my Amazon wish list.) The story goes on to say:

There are all kinds of religious symbols integrated in the art, architecture and statues in the capital, according to Father Hemrick.

“They are inscribed in halls, painted on ceilings, represented in wall panels, enshrined in lunettes, and pieced together in mosaics,” he wrote in his book.

When asked the motives people have for contributing to public memorials, he said sometimes it is to reconcile America’s past mistakes or to honor influential people who have helped shape our nation.

While this is certainly true, and it is also the case that many of America’s founders held Christian beliefs, and that the artists were Christians as well, this also points to the idea of civil religion, a sociological phenomenon best explained by Robert Bellah. In one of his famous essays, Bellah points out that although our nation’s founders often referred to God, or Providence, or the Creator, they never refer to Jesus Christ, even if they themselves were Christian. Unlike today, when such a generic term might be used so that Americans of non-Christian faiths do not feel discrimination, this was not the purpose of this rhetoric. Rather, the god described by our nation’s leaders from President Washington through JFK to this present day is one concerned with virtue, social action, and abiding by right law — and not so interested in mercy, compassion and meditative prayer. In sum, it’s a god who fits America’s progressive, active vision, which may be a distortion of the God who actually Is. Whether you buy it or not, Bellah’s a fascinating read.

Anyway, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in D.C. these past months, and I plan be spending quite a bit more in the future, so I’ll have to be on the lookout for these religious representations as I go about town. The city was a forerunner in the City Beautiful movement, which promoted the building of classically inspired (European like) monuments as a means for encouraging citizens to act in a virtuous manner.

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A (Rightful) Call for ‘Old-Fashioned’ Connoisseurship

August 6, 2010

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Tuesday’s New York Times ran a piece on two art historians’ quest to restore “old-fashioned connoisseurship” among art historians. As a graduate student of art history myself, I give a hearty “hear hear” to their cry.

From the story:

“Art history has been hijacked by other disciplines,” said Mr. Kanter, who teaches a connoisseurship seminar to Yale graduate students. “Original works of art have been forgotten. They’re being used as data, without any sense of whether they’re good, bad or indifferent.”

He added: “No one wants to turn art history back 150 years. But we’re lacking an important tool that we threw out the window 70 years ago.”

The outspoken Mr. Feigen, who graduated from Yale in 1952, went further. “There isn’t a single art history department in the world that I consider first-class,” he said, as he toured the exhibition earlier this year. “I’m hoping Yale will develop a focus on objects instead of theories.”

The idea is a simple one: If Mr. Feigen can spot Fra Angelico-level quality by closely looking at art with his well-trained eye, perhaps students too one day can learn to tell gold from dross.

Mr. Kanter and Mr. Feigen do have allies in their cause, though it is a small club, many of whose members are white, male and over 40.

“It’s not uncommon to encounter bright students who are able to express the most abstract ideas with ease and who, when faced with actual works of art, are tongue-tied,” said Keith Christiansen, a curator of European paintings at the Met and Mr. Kanter’s former colleague there. “Connoisseurship needs to form an alliance with the very academic approach. They inform each other.”

Like most (all?) graduate art history students, I took a required theory class my first semester, and now I regularly apply some aspect of some theoretician’s thought to my own research. However, I totally agree that this doesn’t promote an intimacy with art itself — in fact, theories can exhaust the art, boiling it down to semiotic mush. Recently, I wrote on frescoes in San Clemente in Rome depicting St. Catherine of Alexandria attributed to Renaissance painter Masolino da Panicale. It was clear from my research that the verdict is still out whether or not these were Masolino’s works for certain, or whether they could be attributed to his teacher Masaccio. Frankly, as a graduate student focusing on architecture, and not Renaissance frescoes, I don’t feel qualified to make my own judgement,  but it illustrates the need for connoisseurship — someone has to have the skills to decipher the difference between a master and his student, and if it’s not the historian, who will it be? Students of art history need to get out of the classroom and into the museums, churches and private collection to see the art itself, and spend time in studios of artists who have mastered the craft.

Mastering feminist theory, hermeneutics or iconographic analysis is not knowing art. To put our focus there, as we have for decades now, means we risk missing both the trees and the forest.

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Hunting for Masqueray

July 28, 2010


Cathedral of St. Paul

Next year we’ll be celebrating Emmanuel Louis Masqueray‘s 150th birthday — at least, we should be.

He’s responsible for some seriously notable midwest ecclesiastical architecture. The man designed the Cathedral of St. Paul; the Basilica of St. Mary; St. Louis King of France; the Thomas Aquinas Chapel at the University of St. Thomas and the university’s Ireland Hall; Keane Hall at Loras College in Dubuque, IA; Holy Redeemer in Marshall, MN; St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Sioux Falls, SD;  and Immaculate Conception in Wichita, Kan., — just to name a few.

Yet, he’s, at best, a footnote in the tomes of American architects.

And I cannot figure out why.

I’m pursuing a master’s degree in Art History from the aforementioned University of St. Thomas, and my thesis focuses on Archbishop John Ireland‘s patronage of the Cathedral and the Basilica. This includes the choice of Masqueray as the architect and his Ecole des Beaux Arts-influenced design.

But digging stuff up on the man is proving frustrating. Apparently, Masqueray and Ireland were in personal contact almost daily, so little written communication between the men existed. And I’ve heard rumors that there once WAS an archive of Masqueray’s papers held by the Catholic Historical Society of St. Paul, but they have mysteriously disappeared.

To  make matters worse, efforts to locate Eric Hansen, the author of The Cathedral of St. Paul: An Architectural Biography, which  the Cathedral published in 1990, have also failed (trust me, the Cathedral’s tried). Hansen may be the only one who can give me  more insight into an intriguing fact he added to the first page in his book: That Archbishop Ireland kept scrapbooks with ideas for a Cathedral long  before he actually commissioned it.

FASCINATING! Now, where the heck are they?

They’re NOT in the Cathedral archives, or the archdiocesan archives — at least not obviously. I spent an hour last week going through five boxes absolutely crammed with Ireland’s scrapbooks. He kept newspaper clippings on every topic of importance to him — the Catholic church in America, the temperance movement, the current pope, the church in the Philippines, the  plight of Irish immigrants — and they’re absolutely incredible. With each box I opened and each book I wedged out, I deeply hoped I would open the pages to a clipped photo of an old French church or the Baltimore Cathedral. And with each turn of the page I grew more and more disappointed.

I know research shouldn’t be easy, but dead-ends are getting a bit old.

Somewhere out there, somebody has seen these scrapbooks, and someone else knows where Masqueray’s letters are. I’m counting on Providence to make our paths cross.

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A unique view of Raphael’s only tapestries

July 20, 2010



Onlookers get a good view of Raphael's tapestries and cartoons, reunited with each other and their intended space. (CNS)

As long as we’re on an Italian kick, I thought I’d throw one more in with your spaghetti and meatballs. Any of you traveling to Rome  in the near future have a chance for a visual treat — Raphael’s only tapestry series and its preparatory drawings will be displayed side-by-side in the Sistine Chapel, the site for which the tapestries were made. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum will also hang companion tapestries and cartoons in the same way.

For a historian, this is totally sweet.

Most artists don’t intend their preparatory drawings, known as “cartoons,”  to be art objects. Think of them as sketches, oftentimes very good ones, to guide the artist — or, more likely, his apprentices or workshop  artists — toward the artist’s final vision. Raphael didn’t weave these himself; rather, he created the drawing, which the Flemish weavers followed.

However, over the years, surviving cartoons have become important in their own right. They indicate an artist’s original thought and reveal change to the plan as the actual artpiece is executed. They serve as a record for otherwise lost or destroyed works.

According to Mark Evans, senior curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum, as quoted by CNS’ Carol Glatz:

Reuniting the two halves will help people “contrast the two designs” and help them “understand how (Raphael’s designs) matured, developed and were finalized over time,” he said.

More from the story:

Because the designs would be sent off to famed tapestry artisans in Belgium, Raphael had to color them exactly like a painting so weavers would know what precise hues to use. That unique kind of detail meant the cartoons eventually became prized works of art in and of themselves.

Once in the hands of Flemish weavers at Pieter Van Aelst’s workshop in Brussels, the cartoons were cut into strips. They were copied and woven from behind so the cartoon displays the reverse image of what’s on the tapestry’s front.

Flemish weavers were highly regarded artists and had no qualms about “improving” Raphael’s designs, said Evans.

For example with the design, “Feed My Sheep,” the weavers did not like having Jesus wear a plain white robe as Raphael had indicated, so they embellished the robe with gold stars, said Evans. They also did not think Peter should be wearing blue and yellow, so they made his garment a rich red, which was considered a much more regal and sumptuous color, he said.

The tapestries cost 1,600 gold ducats a piece — an enormous amount of money because of intense labor involved and the expensive materials used like real gold and silver thread. The total cost for the 10 designs and tapestries were five times the amount Michelangelo was paid for decorating the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Read the whole thing here. It includes some fascinating history about their commissioning by Pope Leo X and their history after their completion, which includes multiple thefts and owners.

Again from the story:

Coinciding with Pope Benedict’s visit to England in September, the exhibit is meant to be a visible sign of the coming together of the two countries’ common cultural heritage, said Arnold Nesselrath, director of the Vatican Museums’ Byzantine, medieval and modern collections.

Seeing the cartoons alongside the final product is considered to be a once-in-a-lifetime event, he said; “it was something not even Raphael ever got to see.”

Worth a plane ticket over the pond? I think so.

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At Vatican, always room for one more statue

July 9, 2010


POPE-AUDIENCEPope Benedict XVI blessed a the Vatican’s newest statue July 7 — a 16-foot-tall St. Annibale Di Francia carved from Carrara  marble. The statue was placed in one of the Basilica of St. Peter’s outside niches, joining the host of statues of other founders of religious orders who have been filling in the gaps since 1999.

According to a Catholic News Service story by  John Thavis, the architect designed these niches not to be filled. Yet, they are. Why, he asks, does the Vatican need more art, when its impressive collection already has an overwhelming number of pieces? He writes:

The Vatican is home to far more stone figures than living residents — many times more, if you count the Vatican Museums’ approximately 20,000 statues.

Why add more? That question was asked in the 1600s, when the remaining 39 empty niches inside St. Peter’s began filling up with founders of religious orders. Already the interior was crowded with more than 300 statues of popes, bishops and saints, not to mention the winged cherubs that appear all over the place.

Yet it is traditional at the Vatican to keep adding works of art and decorative architecture. That’s why visitors to the Vatican Museums can wander into rooms full of contemporary painting and sculpture, part of a vast collection of modern art works assembled under Pope Paul VI.

One fascinating fact stated by Thavis: All statues commissioned for the Vatican have to be carved by Carrara marble, which is known by the northwestern Italian city from where it comes. It’s known for a creamy white color, and it was the favorite of Michelanglo, the subject of yesterday’s blog post. The last time I was in Italy, my train stopped in Carrara, and before I saw the city’s sign, I was captivated by the white crevices of the surrounding mountains. My dad and I were debating whether it was marble or snow, because it was so white, and the Italian man sitting across from us — who had not uttered a thing to us up until this point — understood enough of our conversation to put it to rest. He pointed out the window, looked at us, and said “Pieta.”

Additionally, yesterday the Holy Father urged St. Annibale’s congregation to keep praying for vocations. According to Zenit, the Pope told the Rogationist Fathers:

“Follow his example and joyfully continue his mission, still valid today, even though the social conditions in which we live have changed. In particular, spread ever more the spirit of prayer and of solicitude for all vocations in the Church; be eager laborers for the coming of the Kingdom of God, dedicating yourselves with every energy to evangelization and human development.”

I’m guessing it’s this example of which the saint’s new statue is intended to be a reminder.

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Making something good even better

June 30, 2010


Bancel LaFarge designed this window of St. Clare in the Cathedral of St. Paul using the methods he learned from his father, famous East Coast artist John LaFarge. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Bancel LaFarge designed this window of St. Clare in the Cathedral of St. Paul using the methods he learned from his father, famous East Coast artist John LaFarge. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

East Coast churches have dazzling stained glass, but so does our Cathedral of St. Paul

They looked like fused gobs of chunky carnival candy, so brilliantly hued that, for a moment, I wanted to pry out a piece and pop it in my mouth.

Good thing I didn’t: It was glass.

In June I spent a week poking around some of America’s most magnificent Victorian homes in Newport, R.I.

I went hoping to deepen my knowledge about the era’s architecture (which I did), but my attention easily strayed from cornices and balustrades to the stained glass windows decorating a handful of the homes and churches I visited.

This was not ordinary stained glass. Instead of employing traditional methods, these were among the first “opalescent” glass windows. Previously, artists painted colored windows with dark paint to add detail or filter light within the glass. Opalescent glass is made containing gradations of density and color, diminishing the need for paint. The result is glass that appears to have its own texture, movement and, well, life, in contrast to its rather stoic predecessor.

Many of the windows I saw also had “gems” fused with the panes — the previously mentioned dollops, sometimes smooth, sometimes harshly faceted, that captured my eye.

Later, I discovered that this glass fathered the treasures in — literally — my own St. Paul backyard.

An American artist

The man credited for this design revolution was John LaFarge (1835-1910), a New York City-born artist who earned his chops while studying with painter William Morris Hunt in Newport.

LaFarge’s earliest work graces several of the city’s landmarks, and later pieces show up in grand homes and small churches throughout New England.

Both a painter and artist, LaFarge, a Catholic, received his big break when he offered to design the interior of Boston’s Episcopalian Trinity Church, which was designed by architect Henry Hobson Richardson. The 1877 structure is credited — inside and out — for inspiring a truly “American” aesthetic at a time when the centennial-celebrating nation was seeking to identify who, exactly, it was.

For LaFarge, the rest was history. His glass technique was soon adopted by Louis Comfort Tiffany (famous for his windows and lamps), who was better able to market the stuff than LaFarge (who, unfortunately, earned a reputation for not finishing work in a timely manner and for digging himself into debt).

Some of LaFarge’s best work is in churches, and radiant images of angels, saints and biblical figures have long drawn his admirers — both religious and secular — into houses of God, if only for a moment.

Connection to local treasure

As I examined the particularities of LaFarge’s glass design, I noticed some striking similarities to some familiar Twin Cities windows — the backs of which I can see from my desk at The Catholic Spirit.

The way the figures’ clothing folded and draped over their heads and arms, the gradation of light, the thoughtful expressions — they reminded me of the series of saint windows in the Cathedral of St. Paul’s Shrine of Nations.

Sure enough. Well, almost.

It was not John LaFarge who designed the 12 windows that dramatically light the Cathedral’s chevet, but rather his son, Bancel.

When the windows were created in 1927-28, the senior LaFarge had passed away, and Bancel had achieved success in his own right. His Cathedral commission was undoubtedly aided by the fact that a childhood friend in Newport — a butler’s son named Austin Dowling — was currently archbishop of St. Paul.

Six shrines comprise the Shrine of Nations to honor six ethnic groups whose immigrants were the city’s earliest Catholics. Each shrine has two Bancel LaFarge windows, each depicting a saint. (His initials “BLaF” adorn a few of them.)

My favorite is St. Clare of Assisi in the Italian chapel. As in her typical depictions, she holds a ciborium containing the Eucharist. Legend holds that she brought the Eucharist to her convent’s gates when it was threatened by looters, and the whole town was spared. She’s also usually shown garbed in brown robes typical of a Franciscan.

But not in Bancel’s mind.

Her veil is green, her mantle is orange, and her gown is awash in purples and greens. Framed by a rose-hued halo, her face bears a pensive expression as she looks over her shoulder.

A visual, spiritual treat

Nearby, her male counterpart, St. Francis, also wears colorful robes as he gazes at the sun and moon, evoking the way he imagined all creation — including “brother Sun and sister Moon” — praising God.

“Perhaps the artist wished to evoke the beauty of lives lived in perfect dependence on and submission to God,” author Dia Boyle writes in “Stone and Glass: The Meaning of the Cathedral of St. Paul,” published in 2008.

I don’t know what Bancel was thinking when he cast aside the traditional for the unexpected. But I suspect, as Boyle does, that it was done in devotion. He was  a devout Catholic who invested in Catholic organizations, including a three-year stint as president of the Liturgical Arts Society of America.

Bancel also designed the windows for the Cathedral’s Sacred Heart chapel, as well as the murals and windows for St. Mary’s Chapel at the St. Paul Seminary.

Like John LaFarge, Bancel had the ability to present long-depicted themes in surprising ways, casting an even greater beauty in a place where it was already to be found. His glass lacks the signature candy-like medallions of his father’s work, but it’s just as delicious to the mind and eye.

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Contemporary art is capable of conveying eternal truths

June 29, 2010


School Sister of Notre Dame Mary Ann Osborne holds her artwork “Sanctuary” as she stands in her Mankato studio.

School Sister of Notre Dame Mary Ann Osborne holds her artwork “Sanctuary” as she stands in her Mankato studio.

People don’t usually think of Michelangelo as a modern artist.

He’s known for his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, the marble “Pietà” in St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s dome that dominates the eastern Roman skyline.

But it’s partly a Michelangelo sculpture that inspired Sister Mary Ann Osborne to create the contemporary wooden artworks that fill her Mankato studio and grace several churches, including Holy Rosary in Minneapolis and Pax Christi in Eden Prairie.

Known as the “Pietà Rondanini,” it was one of several pietà statues carved by the Renaissance artist. It was also his last; Michelangelo worked on it just days before his death in 1564.

Most historians consider this pietà an unfinished work because it lacks the smooth polishing and intricate dealing of his other work.

Sister Mary Ann thinks it may be otherwise: a modern piece before its time.

In it, Mary holds the crucified Christ vertically, his head resting on her shoulder. The marble is rough and tool marked, the faces undefined. A disconnected arm is suspended in front of Christ, revealing that Michaelangelo either changed his mind or reused another piece.

“I love more primitive pieces; they bring out the essence of what something is about,” she said. “Maybe that’s why I was attracted to Michelangelo’s piece, because it is more primitive.”

Mary and Jesus’ chests are touching, she pointed out, as if their hearts are connected. “It always spoke to me as something that [Michelangelo] knew at the end of his life that was different than when he was a young person,” she told me as she sat in her studio, surrounded by her art, raw wood and tools.

Professed for 35 years as a School Sister of Notre Dame, Sister Mary Ann has been making art for about 25 years. She works mostly in wood, but her sculptures also include glass, tile, paint and metal. Many of her pieces are large, and all of them are inspired by her Catholic faith.

“It’s really ancient truths told in new ways,” she said. “I cannot really separate who I am and how I pray from my art, because it’s one and how God speaks to me.”

‘Custodians of beauty’

On Nov. 21, Pope Benedict XVI hosted more than 250 international artists in the Sistine Chapel, where he invited them and their work into a deeper relationship with the church.

“Remember that you are the custodians of beauty in the world,” he told them.

For centuries, the church was the greatest patron of the arts, but in the last few centuries that relationship has waned, giving way to a growing disconnect between contemporary art and the church.

I haven’t always connected with it, either. Truth be told, for a long time, I detested modern and contemporary art.

I mean, it looks weird, right?

Its abstracted or stylized forms are confusing, and I’m often frustrated by my inability to immediately understand the message the artist is conveying. At first glance, some of it can look unrefined and childish.

However, I’ve changed my mind.

I’ve learned to appreciate the challenge of contemporary art, the way it coaxes me to really think about  what I’m seeing.

Earlier art doesn’t always do that. Unfortunately, it can be easy to gloss over a medieval “Annunciation” painting, because its scene and meaning are so painstakingly clear.

However, a modern “Annuncia­tion,” like the one in Sister Mary Ann’s studio, compels me to pause to consider the symbolism, to ask why the artist painted something in that way.

“I want to help people see things in a new way, or a deeper way,” Sister Mary Ann said.

His own relationship with art persuaded Pope Paul VI to inaugurate the Vatican Museums’ Collection of Modern Religious Art in 1973.

“We need you,” he had told artists in 1964 at a Sistine Chapel gathering strikingly similar to that of Benedict XVI. “We need your collaboration in order to carry out our ministry, which consists, as you know, in preaching and rendering accessible and comprehensible to the minds and hearts of our people the things of the spirit, the invisible, the ineffable, the things of God himself.”

Pope Benedict XVI reiterated these words Nov. 21, urging the artists not to seek “mere aestheticism,” but rather authentic beauty that liberates mankind from darkness and transfigures it, “unlocking the yearning of the human heart

. . . to reach for the Beyond,” ultimately spurring the heart toward God.

“Faith takes nothing away from your genius or your art,” he said. “On the contrary, it exalts them and nourishes them, it encourages them to cross the threshold and to contemplate with fascination and emotion the ultimate and definitive goal, the sun that does not set, the sun that illumines this present moment and makes it beautiful.”

As much as an exhortation to artists, the pope’s words are also an invitation to viewers: Don’t so easily write off the works of contemporary artists. Search out the beautiful, the true and the good within the works. Ask what they can teach you, and then be taught.

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